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TOEFL Tuesday: Reading Section Advice

Over the next four weeks, we’re going to talk about some of the most common problem in each of the four sections of the TOEFL: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. I’ll also explain some methods you can try to solve those problems, so you can get the highest score possible in every section of the test.

We’re going to start that four-part series with the first section of the text, the reading section.


TOEFL Reading Common Problem 1: The clock

Reading on the TOEFL isn’t quite like reading in your personal life, because the material is very different, and you have only a limited time. In fact, those are the two biggest problems in TOEFL reading: the clock and staying focused on boring reading topics.

The clock is the most common problem. Many students reach the last reading passage with less than 20 minutes remaining. You have exactly 20 minutes for each text and set of questions (e.g. if there are three texts with three question sets, the time limit will be 60 minutes), so if you are a little too slow in the earlier texts, it can cause trouble near the end of the reading section. Imagine you have only ten minutes for the final passage and set of 14 questions. What do you do then? It’s hard to read all that and answer all the questions in such a short time!

TOEFL Reading Tip 1: Read the first question first

One of the most interesting test strategies is not reading the text—at least not in the beginning. On test day, you will see the text before questions. But you can scroll to the end of the text, click “next” to go to the first question, and still have the opportunity to return to the text after. That means you can start your reading with the first question in mind. So you read the first question, then go to the text and start reading. When you find the answer to the first question, you stop reading, give your answer, and look at the next question. Once you know what to look for, go back to the text and continue reading from where you had stopped. Read until you find the answer for question two, etc. This strategy is most helpful for advanced students who can comfortably understand both the meaning of the question and of the text. For lower level students, it may make more sense to focus only on the reading at first, to understand as much as possible of the bigger ideas.

TOEFL Reading Common Problem 2: Focus (boring texts)

The second problem, focus, makes problem of timing even harder. It’s easy to waste time reading and re-reading the same text because it is not only difficult, but also extremely boring. TOEFL reading can be about very random, specific scientific topics. For example, you might read a text about what materials were used for mirrors before the invention of glass mirrors. Pair that with difficult vocabulary, and you have a text that can be hard to focus on.

TOEFL Reading Tip 2: Focus

When you are reading a boring passage, don’t just think about the meanings of the individual words or phrases. Consider the whole paragraph. Try to summarize what you are reading! If you can summarize a whole paragraph into one or two sentences, that’s great. Trying to summarize like this means that you have to stay engaged with the text, looking for the most important ideas. If you think about how the text is structured, it can really help you stay focused. The more you think about what you are reading—summarizing, reacting to—the better you will understand and remember it later. Paraphrasing longer sentences and paragraphs is the simplest way to make yourself think about the overall text and the author’s intentions.